Spirit Levels – Superstition & Architecture

14 Aug

Burnt doves, lost shoes and lucky numbers…how does architecture reflect our hopes and fears? An essay for Meanjin about the spooky superstitions that haunt the buildings we inhabit…



The Lost Places of Childhood

10 Aug

Squinting back into the sunlit haze of my distant past, I recall a handful of hidden places that once meant everything to me. Childhood forts, magical spots, secret havens – whatever I call them now, it doesn’t capture what they meant to me back then.

They were places for play, for dreaming, for private ceremonies and spells. Each had its own atmosphere, its own rituals, its own particular scents and colours and associations. Summoning them up now, I’m back there in a flash.

Pooh Bear and Piglet, AA Milne

Spy grotto: a green gap inside an overgrown roadside hedge where my best friend Matt and I would hide to spy on passers-by, startling them with strange hoots and wild animal calls. We’d also conjure spells in there, using dirt, unearthed bones and the purple juice of crushed fuschia flowers.

Secret portal: a set of spooky old moss-covered wooden steps that led nowhere, a shadowy portal hovering in a gloomy pine forest. I half-hoped this spot would lead me into another world, like the wardrobe in the Narnia books, or Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.

Climbing tree: I loved my beautiful climbing tree, with its glimmering silver leaves. But one morning after a big storm, mum held me up to the kitchen window to see my poor tree laying flat on its side, blown down by the wind. It was such a shock, to realise the things you love can just fall over.

Grass fort: a hollow in the long grass, where I’d lie back under the sky and daydream, surrounded by butterflies, tiny hopping money spiders, trilling cicadas and the scent of wormwood bushes. This blissful, private spot was on a farm we often visited, and I kept it entirely to myself.

All these years later, I still miss these special places. Recalling them now, I’m struck by a sense of loss and longing. And I wonder: when we grow up and lose our childhood havens, our secret boltholes and clubhouses, our forts and tree-houses, and all the private rituals we build around these magic sites…

I don’t believe we stop needing them. But what do we have to take their place?


Leucadendron Argenteum (Silver Tree)

This short piece is a teaser for a longer article I’m writing for Open Field magazine. All profits from sales of the iPad magazine will go to CARE Australia.

Why stories buzz your brain

18 May


Ever gotten so lost in a great book that you’ve felt like you’re actually there, experiencing the story-world as if it were real? Ever had the sense that you’re “inside” a character’s mind, looking out through their eyes?

Well there’s a good reason for that, say scientists. A brain-imaging study by a team of US psychologists found that when readers get really engrossed in a story, they create vivid “mental simulations” of the sensory details – sounds, sights, tastes and movements – being described on the page. These vivid mental simulations, known as “situation models”, are an integrated mix of the information given in the story, and the reader’s own prior knowledge of the world.

What’s more – and here’s the exciting bit – the study also found that reading about an experience activates the same brain regions that process similar experiences in real life. Different brain regions track different aspects of a story as it unfolds, including things like a character’s physical location, or their interaction with objects.

So in this study, when story character Raymond picked up a pencil, the corresponding region of the reader’s brain lit up on the scanner – the part that controls grasping hand movements. And when Raymond moved from Point A to Point B, neurons fired off in the part of the reader’s brain that processes changes in spatial location.

It was as if the reader slipped right inside the character’s point of view, re-living their experiences vicariously. Right down at the nitty-gritty cellular level, reading seems to be an embodied activity, a sensory experience without the real-world risks. No wonder it gives us such a kick.

Link to full academic article

Nerd reference: Speer, N. K., J. R. R, et al. (2009). “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences.” Psychological Science, 20(8): 989-999.

Aural escape tactic

20 Apr

When you want to be else/where… This site, NatureSounds, lets you pick four different nature sounds and remix them into your own customised relaxation soundtrack.

When your brain won’t stop buzzing, it’s hard to lull yourself into a state of rest, so I’m experimenting with audio tracks designed to switch off the incessant mental jabber. I’ve been boringly unwell, and getting better apparently involves taking enforced rest periods (which, to me, sounds a bit like “mandatory fun” or “compulsive spontaneity” – kinda counter-intuitive, and hard to get your head around.) But okay, worth a shot.

What’s the connection with place? Umm, let me see…using aural cues to emotionally relocate to an imaginative space? Escaping the here and now? Aural transportation? Yep. All that sort of thing.

Here’s my nature sounds mix: http://naturesoundsfor.me/load/embedded_player/LieDownAndListen.swf

Machine for a Lost Song

13 Dec

clear as a bird,
his wordless voice
boy in a swimsuit, halo-bright
climbing the rope to our tree house
a black nest swaying high above
as note by note, the kid
sang himself up

we lost his song
for innocent reasons:
years melt, days blur
summer burns out
life puts shadows in your mouth
a mind can only hold so much
& dusk now has its own soundtrack

but now we need to know:
can new machines
summon old echoes back?

and so we listen
to the wires at night
in rooms awash with static:
white noise, black air, the phantom hiss and pop
of memory, the dust and ether
of a million broken songs afloat

turning a dial in darkness
we sift the oxygen, the ghost-filled sky
for that pure cadence
a kid who sang himself aloft
the low note rising up
to reach the high

(Painting credit: copyright Pam Mundell, www.pammundell.co.nz)

Portrait of a Road

23 Jan


We pass each other on the interstate
Honk and cross over to the other lane
Everybody’s going somewhere, everybody’s inside
Hundreds of cars, hundreds of private lives
– Lucinda Williams, ‘Out of Touch’

Destiny: You spread out the map, read the names of those remote black dots: Birdsville, Broken Hill, Bordertown, Casino, Eden, Jigalong, Lucknow, Heartbreak Hotel, Mount Hope, Pardoo, Pingaring, Rabbit Flat, Uluru, Wandering. A whole alphabet of elsewhere.

History: Each placename, each dot, is a word strung on a thread. These criss-crossing lines form the arteries and capillaries of the road network: our lifeline, our link to far-off places and distant loved ones. Every road has a story, but most suffer from amnesia. Highways, for instance, commemorate white explorers: Eyre, Hume, Stuart. None carry the names of the Aboriginal guides who first led them out there, along some faint walking track.

Myth: A road is a mere thing, a flattened construction of gravel, tar, bitumen, bulldust, dirt. It gets you from A to B. Sometimes you do the driving, sometimes you’re a passenger. But perhaps, beneath the blacktop, lies another road altogether – an imaginary place, a repository for our collective hopes, dreams and fears: Freedom. Progress. Opportunity. Friendship. Romance. Love. Escape. Speed. Danger. Injury. Death. Aimlessness. Isolation. Getting lost.

Lore: Films, books, icons, urban myths…you can lose yourself in roads without ever leaving home. King of the Road, Highway to Hell, Roadhouse Blues, No Particular Place to Go, Thunder Road, Crossroads. On the Road, Lolita, Hell’s Angels, Two-Lane Blacktop, Lost Highway, Backroads, Vanishing Point, Easy Rider, Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise, Crash, Badlands, Highway to Nowhere, Wolfe Creek. Bradley John Murdoch and Ivan Milat. James Dean, Isadora Duncan and Princess Diana. Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner. Road sense, road hog, road kill. One for the road. May the road rise to meet you. It’s true: you never know what’s around the corner.

Memory: You recall those road trips. Buckled up safe in the backseat on a family drive, playing endless games of eye-spy. Window rolled down, scooting your bare arm through the silky air of summer. Heading out on a Saturday night, drinking beer in parking lots, kissing in the back seat. Hands steady on the wheel, checking the rear-view mirror, setting out alone at last. You stop to ask directions. You pass a white cross, nailed to a tree. You pass a burnt-out car. And all those other people, behind their windscreens: you pass them too.

From A Place Tells a Story, And Collective

Site visit: the money factory

18 Dec

From the outside it looked like a prison, or some kind of war bunker. We spoke into an intercom and a gate slid open, then waited inside a steel cage before a second gate admitted us into a small antechamber.

After signing the 48-page security document, we trundled through a floor-to-ceiling turnstile, handed our passports to the guards, and were photographed beneath a wall of CCTV screens. We fed our bags and watches through an airport x-ray machine, and walked through a body scanner.

This got us inside…the reception area. After that I lost count of the electronic security gates, turnstiles and huge vaulted doors. The place bristled with surveillance cameras and our guides – the mint’s CEO, and the Reserve Bank’s media manager and head of banknote issue – were clearly nervous about our presence. Apparently this was the first time a journo and photographer had been allowed inside.

The real action took place in the printing hall, a factory floor the size of two soccer fields. Nonchalant workers in overalls wrestled slabs of plastic sheeting from giant printing machines and stacked them onto pallets.

Blank plastic sheets went in one end, the layers of ink built up, and a blur of yellow fifties whizzed past, a non-stop stream of cash materialising before our eyes. All of Australia’s billion-odd circulating banknotes are manufactured in this room. The ink smelt like bananas.

In the guillotine room women stacked handfuls of notes into trays. I leaned on a pallet of bundled fifties. The CEO got out his iPhone to calculate the value of this stack of plastic: 15 million dollars. But a technician said no, this pallet had a fault: some tiny mistake that rendered the whole lot worthless. It was all destined for the shredder, where it would be chopped into confetti-sized flakes then recycled — perhaps a plastic wheelbarrow, a water-tank or worm farm.

On the way home, passing through the eerie gated housing estates and farmland of outer Craigieburn, my petrol light kept blinking on. I scanned anxiously for a gas station. When one finally materialised, I carefully rang up exactly $10 of fuel, just enough to get me safely home. That left a grand total of $2.38 in my account.